Ben Roethlisberger's ability to perform under a heavy pass rush remains critical to Pittsburgh's offensive success.
09 Dec 2009
by Doug Farrar
Anyone who watched the Big 12 championship and saw Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh wreak utter havoc in Texas' backfield, treating the Longhorns' offensive line as a subordinate factor, had to know that they were seeing something special. It's not often that an interior lineman of any stripe takes over a game as completely as Suh did, but he's been playing at a freakish level all season. The Nagurski Award winner finished his senior campaign with 12 sacks, 23 tackles for a loss, 10 pass breakups and 3 blocked kicks -- breaking double or triple teams on almost every play -- and leaving analysts gasping for adjectives.
Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com, not a guy prone to overstatement when it comes to pro prospects, made it simple when I asked him what Suh has to offer: He's the best. "Because of the ability to simultaneously take up blockers, stuff the run and collapse the pocket directly in front of the quarterback, the defensive tackle position has always been one of the game's most important positions. As such, teams have long been willing to invest high picks on college prospects who flash the skills necessary to dominate at the point of attack. Gambling on potential has therefore led to defensive tackle being one of the NFL's riskiest positions to select on draft day."
"What makes Suh so rare is not that he has the physical attributes -- size, strength, agility, explosiveness -- teams are looking for at the position. It is instead that that he combines these physical skills with the attributes even more critical to success in the NFL: technique, passion and durability. It is what makes Suh the prohibitive favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 NFL draft."
You'll be able to see him as a 'Husker one more time, facing Arizona in the Holiday Bowl. Then, Ndamukong Suh (the name means "House of Spears" in the language of the Ngema tribe in Cameroon, where his father is from) will hit the pre-draft wires and prepare to amaze at the next level. Having studied him intently for the first time for this article, I can't wait to see him take on center-guard combos on the NFL. At this point, he's tearing college lines to bits.
It was easy to see the effect of Suh's presence on a first-and-10 with Iowa State at their own 33 and less than two minutes left in the first quarter. At the snap, Suh crashed inside from left defensive tackle and was triple-teamed as nickelback Eric Hagg flushed quarterback Jerome Tiller out of the pocket. Hagg just missed a sack as Tiller threw it away. The triple team was partially intentional, but Suh caused it to a point by pushing right guard Ben Lamaak into running back Jeremiah Schwartz, and right tackle Scott Haughton followed Lamaak into the scrum.
Two plays later, Iowa State had third-and-11, and Suh went to work. He twisted outside left as the Huskers went with the double A-gap blitz, then reversed field as Tiller bailed and ran upfield. Lamaak tried to stop him from coming back inside, but Suh treated the guard as a minor annoyance, pushing him out of the way with one hand and closing in on Tiller. Suh flashed amazing speed and strength on this play, finishing things off by throwing Tiller to the ground like the proverbial rag doll.
Iowa State's next drive began with 11:14 left in the first half, and Suh complicated things all the way. After a holding penalty on left tackle Kelechi Osemele put the Cyclones first-and-20 at their own 18, Suh sifted past Lamaak and center Reggie Stephens with two awesome rip moves -- the first to separate Lamaak from the line, and the second to get Stephens out of the way. Hurried again, Tiller rolled right just out of Suh's reach and threw it away. The blockers were little more than padded dummies on a rip drill. On the next play, Tiller got a pass off to receiver Josh Lenz on a quick screen inside the left hashmark. Suh, who was already past his blocker (Lamaak was letting him through to hit the second level), reversed his field and caught up to Lenz, who's been timed with a 4.56-second 40, fifteen yards downfield. Suh may be built like a tackle, but his pursuit speed has to be seen to be believed -- he closes in on space like a really big linebacker.
The Cyclones got their only touchdown of the game as a result of the next two plays -- a 20-yard fake punt run, and a 47-yard touchdown pass from Tiller to receiver Jake Williams -- and Suh blocked the extra point. On the touchdown, Tiller took a zone read right while Suh was double down-blocked inside. He finished the Iowa State game with two blocks (a field goal as well), six solo tackles, a sack, three quarterback hurries, and whole lot of disruption that didn't show up on the stat sheet. Halfway through the 2009 season, Suh was starting to look like Superman. Did anyone have Kryptonite?
Suh experienced a brief downturn in 2009, failing to register a sack or tackle for loss against Oklahoma on November 7 and Kansas on the 14th. Nebraska won both games, but Suh knew that more was expected of him. Bo Pelini assured his best defensive player that the schemes arrayed against him were a sign of respect. "He thinks he should make plays no matter how many guys are on him, and he has for the most part," the Nebraska coach told the Associated Press after the Kansas game. "It’s been a tough row to hoe for him, especially this last week. I sensed a little bit of frustration on him after the game because he didn’t feel like he played well, but when you look at the film, he played well." Suh gave himself an "F" grade after Kansas, though I think this was more about how the game plan went against him.
The Jayhawks played keep-away from Suh, using quarterback draws away from him after he collapsed the pocket, and employing quick throws to avoid Nebraska's penetration. Suh still ended Kansas' first drive by bulling past right guard Jeff Spikes and hurrying quarterback Todd Reesing into an incompletion. On their second drive, Kansas trotted out the Pistol formation and doubled Suh on any play taking longer than a single second. Draws from the Pistol exploited Suh' furious pursuit, and he'd find himself on the outside looking in as a running back hit the seam. Kansas threw slide protection away from playside, leading the line that way, and getting the ball out as quickly as possible. With Suh as the right end in a 3-4 look, Nebraska ended Kansas' final first-quarter drive with a successful corner blitz from Prince Amukamara. Using quick impact blocks and fast-timed plays, Kansas kept Suh to two solo tackles, but the scheme against Nebraska's defense limited their options and had Reesing bailing out far too often. Kansas discovered that Suh isn't the only great defender on that roster.
The wider splits of the Texas Tech offensive line also limited Suh's ability to get penetration when the two teams played on October 17, and Suh had some caustic remarks after the Kansas game about "the cutesy stuff we see the majority of the time in our conference with spread offenses.” While he will see spread-style offenses in the NFL as those concepts continue to gain traction, spread-style blocking and quarterback lifespan don't mesh very well in the pros. In his final regular-season game, Suh threw all that frustration aside and put his stamp on the biggest stage he'd ever taken.
The complete and total dominance of Suh's performance in this game was marked early -- Texas center Chris Hall got busted for a chop block on Suh on the first play of the game. Two plays later, end Pierre Allen deflected a Colt McCoy pass that was intercepted by Hagg. Texas' next drive ended with a three-and-out. With 9:12 left in the first quarter, the Longhorns set up for the third. From his own 23-yard line, McCoy took the shotgun snap, gave a little fake to running back Tre' Newton, and prepared to pass the ball as Newton headed outside right guard David Snow to double-team Suh. Suh simply pushed Newton out of the way with his left hand, and threw Snow to the ground with his right. All that was left was to take McCoy down with the help of fellow defensive tackle Jared Crick, a highly-regarded player in his own right. It was evident in the rip moves against Iowa State, but this play brought one of Suh's primary attributes into sharp focus -- his upper-body strength is astonishing. Two plays later, McCoy was picked off again, this time by cornerback Prince Amukamara.
His second sack came with 12:38 left in the first half, and the Longhorns facing third-and-2 from their own 41. Texas sent their entire protection fast to the right and McCoy rolled out behind it. Suh was held out of pursuit by the rolling Hall and Snow at first; then right tackle Kyle Hix shot out to the second level and gave Suh a really nice hand strike. This pushed Suh out to the 40-yard line, with McCoy at the 33 running right. Your average tackle would have been taken out of the play, but we've established that Suh is anything but "average." Off the hand-punch, Suh ran past Hix at an angle, turned on that incredible speed, and knocked McCoy out of bounds along with end Cameron Meredith at the Texas 35. For all his power going straight ahead and his agility in reverse, this play showed how tenacious Suh is when he's riding out a play to its logical (or illogical) end. It also showed, once again, just how effective he is when closing in on a ball carrier. When a guy this big can move this fast, good things tend to happen.
The third sack came with 43 seconds left in the half, and illustrated a very simple point. Single-blocking Mr. Suh is ... well ... not that smart. Hall cut inside and up to chip Crick and deal with any second-level rushers, but that left Suh one-on-one with right guard Michael Huey. No technical mumbo-jumbo here -- Suh just bulled Huey back and took McCoy down. Gave him a startling jolt at the snap, and rag-dolled him out of the way. That was unfair.
McCoy got it again on Texas' first drive of the second half. The 'Horns had second-and-23 at their own 24. At the snap, Hall angled right to help Huey with a combo block. Suh pushed Huey out of the Octagon with his left hand, and Hall's own momentum somehow kept him from getting a good plant to block. Suh simply ran around him. Perhaps bored with the ease with which he was now penetrating Texas' backfield, Suh took McCoy down with a half-body slam this time. McCoy handed off to Newton on third-and-30, and you got the sense that the offense just wanted to get off the field and regroup.
The final sack came on Texas' final, game-winning drive, one play after McCoy's 19-yard pass to Jordan Shipley was compounded by a 15-yard horse-collar call on linebacker Larry Asante. Suh fended off a double team to take McCoy down two yards behind the line of scrimmage as the quarterback tried to get upfield. McCoy got a one-yard gain on a keeper, bouncing to the left after Suh's attempt to break another double almost succeeded. Then, Texas' casual timekeeping, Suh all too close to sacking McCoy again, the throw out of bounds, and the review that took 20 years off Bo Pelini's life. With one second put back on the clock. Hunter Lawrence kicked the 46-yard field goal that gave Texas the Big 12.
Still, there could be no doubt whatsoever that Ndamukong Suh did everything possible to prevent that loss. four and a half sacks, 10 solo tackles, and seven tackles in the backfield. It was a virtuoso performance that capped Suh's great season and put him in the running to be the first predominantly defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy since Michigan's Charles Woodson in 1997. Some are already saying that any other choice for the award would be ridiculous. All I can say is that if the Heisman is meant to spotlight the best player in college football, I don't know how it can possibly go anywhere else.
To call a defensive player "unstoppable" or "unblockable" is generally the height of hyperbole. Different teams use different strategies to deal with elite defenders, and until we see a guy get 60 sacks/hits/hurries in one game, it's obviously best to look at an overall performance by a defensive lineman in the context of how difficult it is to keep him from consistently disrupting an opposing game plan. In that regard, Suh is sometimes, and always has the potential to be, as good as I've yet seen. The Richard Seymour and Warren Sapp comparisons are frequent and instructive, but I view Suh as more of a Joe Greene type, because of the terrifying mixture of line power and speed in space. Greene had a revolutionary agility that belied his size (especially in his era), and it was tough to believe when you saw strength and speed to those degrees in one player. We may now have the evolutionary version.
What I took away from this analysis is that Suh's speed will take him over the top at the next level. The inside moves and overall power are everything you'd expect from a guy with this much hype, but the ability to close on moving targets and extend pursuit from side to side are things you don't usually see from a 6-foot-4, 300-pound individual. He could play the nose in any Cover 2 variant (maybe even a Ratliff-style nose in a 3-4 -- I think the 3-4 end position would be too restrictive), but I really see him going crazy as a three-technique tackle in any 4-3, with others manning the point and Suh free to do everything from his supreme rip moves to spying ball carriers in short spaces. The NFL team that sets him up to employ his versatility might reap the greatest benefits of the 2010 draft.
59 comments, Last at 15 Dec 2009, 8:57pm by Mr Shush